What a freakin' interesting night at the New York Philharmonic.
A Dancer's Dream premiered last evening at Avery Fisher Hall, and has two more performances this weekend – but it's sold out.
Using as its basis the Stravinsky works of Le Baiser de la fée (The Fairy's Kiss) and Petrushka along with a brief excerpt from Durey's Neige (Snow) for Piano Four-Hands, A Dancer's Dream combined music, dance, film, live video, puppetry, and stage actors to create an enormously complex multimedia performance.
Master visionary director Doug Fitch teamed up with puppeteers Giants Are Small, choreographer Karole Armitage, and video producer Edouard Gataz for the project. NYCB dancers Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar danced the steps, although Amar also had major responsibilities as a puppeteer. The New York Philharmonic played the music when they weren't –– more on that later.
The evening strung together like this (from Fitch's Playbill notes):
Tonight, our story unfolds as a kind of über Fairy Tale, connecting two great ballets by Stravinsky with an excerpt from a piece for piano (four hands) by the surrealist composer Louis Durey. The thread that weaves them all together takes the form of a young woman who slips into the world of her own imagination and is swept away by muses to become a ballerina.
. . .
By über I mean it amalgamates several themes that fairy tales share, and from which they derive their own subconscious logic.
. . .
We have merged these into a kind of daydream – a reverie induced by the seductive and transformative power of great music.
Sara Mearns spent a remarkable but exhausting 50 minutes on stage in character during The Fairy's Kiss. She submerged her lifesized self into the miniature world of the puppets, simultaneously appearing on stage and in live video that was projected on a huge screen that hung from the ceiling over the woodwinds section of the orchestra. We watched the live video image of her face gazing from above at the tiny ice capped mountains below as she stood on stage looking over the puppet scenery. If you grew up watching Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, you'd understand the integration of humans, puppets, and the toying with size perception. On stage, Sara was the norm and the puppet stuff was tiny; on the screen, we viewed it all from the puppet's perspective: the puppet stuff appeared normal size and Sara was gigantic.
The shallow stage depth limited Armitage's choreography in The Fairy's Kiss which was dull and typical of what modern choreographers come up with when handed accomplished ballet artists: arabesques, battements, pirouettes, basically a collection of tricks on pointe to alert the audience that a ballet dancer was on stage. Sara was able to overcome the mundaneness of the steps and insert her own imagination into the production – and what an imagination. She wore considerably less makeup than when dancing at NYCB, and for once, we really were able to see into her eyes and soul. What a great job this artist did in conveying the fantastical journey of the young woman and the character Columbine on stage, on film, and in live video.
The Petrushka section of the program was genius on the verge of insanity. Conductor Alan Gilbert earned much applause not just for the gorgeous music he coaxed from the orchestra but for his portrayal as the fully costumed Magician in Petrushka. With the orchestra still playing, he stepped off the podium onto the stage, picked up the lifeless sawdust bag of a puppet Petrushka, gave it a disrespectful shake, and dragged it off the stage and up the audience aisle. He suddenly turned and looked up at the screen to see the huge form of Petrushka still very much alive and menacing at him. Mr. Gilbert's Magician, overcome with fear, turned and ran up the aisle out of the concert hall.
The orchestra members found themselves involved like they probably never envisioned. All were costumed in Russian hats and shawls and sometimes swayed back and forth to the music. While most of the musicians played their instruments, the live videocam caught others in the back drinking and partying. On several occasions the musicians suddenly all got up and switched chairs. On stage, the Moor, Ballerina, and Petrushka as tiny puppets were playing out the storyline while their live video was projected above. Suddenly, a front row violinist stood up and waved a white dialogue paddle that said, "It seems the puppets are fighting." A big puppet bear appeared and jumped on a red ball and walked on it for half the width of the stage. Another violinist suddenly jumped out of her seat and onto the middle of the stage and began juggling three colorful scarves. She was pretty darned good.
Meanwhile, the puppeteers, including Amar Ramasar who was having the time of his life, were racing around in black clothing switching miniature puppet scenes and operating the puppets in front of the video camera – occasionally pausing to insert some Russian folk-style steps.
Sara Mearns has indicated that the performance will be filmed for theaters. Wherever and whenever – don't miss it.
A Matryoshka Doll Pump Bump Award is bestowed upon master visionary director and producer Doug Fitch for this remarkable program.